On DVD: The Special Relationship

The Special Relationship, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Richard Loncraine, concludes Morgan's "Blair Trilogy" of films, and expands HBO's string of historical films that zoom in on pivotal periods in the lives of world leaders. Morgan's loose trilogy began with two films directed by Stephen Frears: The Deal, for British Television, and The Queen, which was released theatrically and for which Helen Mirren won the Oscar (among several other awards and nominations for the film). In all three movies, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed by Michael Sheen, who effectively captures Blair's charm, energy, and chilly, C-3PO-like precision.

The Special Relationship
takes its title from the longstanding friendly diplomacy between the United States and Great Britain. The title takes on additional significance in terms of the personal and professional friendship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton (played here by Dennis Quaid). Morgan and Loncraine's film selects particular passages from the mid-to-late 1990s, when Blair and Clinton served in the highest offices of their respective nations. Beginning with a visit by Blair to the US to gain campaign insights from Clinton's advisers, the story is told mostly from Blair's perspective, following the new PM through his first face-to-face meeting with Clinton, and on through a variety of crises - notably, the Lewinsky scandal and the decision to invade Kosovo.

There is an interesting transition that occurs in
The Special Relationship that makes the film work as a character-driven story, and allows for a discomfitingly ironic coda. First we see the eager Blair, swallowing Clinton's political advice with admiring credulity. As the Lewinsky scandal erupts, and after Blair is mildly slighted once or twice by the president, the PM gains the courage to stand up to Clinton on the subject of Kosovo, eventually forcing the president to support an invasion. The Lewinsky and Kosovo crises gave Blair extremely high public approval ratings - on both sides of the Atlantic - and infused the PM with confidence and even a feeling of superiority. The irony of the film's coda, of course, lies in our knowledge of the extremely low approval ratings Blair faced after developing another presidential relationship - with Clinton's successor.

The film - and Sheen in particular - handles this transition with skillful aplomb, especially in the way it infuses historical incident into carefully-shaped scene-by-scene character dynamics that chart the parallel progress of both the people involved and the events being portrayed. This is done with extreme economy without feeling too much like a pile of dramatic shortcuts. Sheen's expert portrayal tracks Blair's gradual increase in savvy and tactical ability. As Clinton, Quaid is equally effective. The actor proves surprisingly capacious, adopting Clinton's moodiness and physicality in a way that goes well beyond impersonation.

Loncraine's strength is the way he steadily tells this complex story with such speed. In just 90 minutes, several years and a handful of major historical events have been effectively glossed, while keeping Blair's point of view at the forefront of the narrative. Loncraine evokes recognizable but sensitive performances out of a small, focused cast that includes Hope Davis (as Hillary Clinton), Helen McCrory (reprising her role as Cherie Blair from
The Queen), and Mark Bazeley (as Alastair Campbell). This tight direction, Morgan's bullet of a script, and careful but naturalistic performances place The Special Relationship well above the average film released anywhere this past year. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story is an unusually frank Disney production, and it wisely avoids simplifying the strained relationship suggested by the evasive words of the Sherman brothers themselves. Bob and Dick Sherman were Disney's house songwriters beginning with Mary Poppins and continuing through The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and The Tigger Movie. As prolific as their working relationship was - including such non-Disney work as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Charlotte's Web, and Snoopy Come Home - the brothers were never exactly friends, having entirely different personalities and an intense rivalry that bubbled just far enough below the surface to allow them to continue working together.

Bob, senior to Dick by 2 ½ years, began his adult life with aspirations to be a writer of fiction and plays. Upon returning home, injured, following service in World War II, Bob entered college at the same time as Dick, who was beginning to show an aptitude for music and songwriting. The Shermans' parents were both entertainers themselves; their father was a successful Los Angeles-based songwriter, and their mother had been a movie actress during the silent era. Their father posed a direct challenge to his sons that they write a song together; that challenge successfully met, they went on to start a music publishing company that gained a high profile thanks in part to a relationship with Disney's music publishing business. That led to the Shermans writing a hit single for Annette Funicello, followed by another song for a Disney movie starring Funicello.

Shortly thereafter began the Shermans' very long and productive heyday, working full-time on the Disney lot for movies both animated and live-action, for the Disney television unit, and for the Disney parks (including "It's a Small World"). Their work for Disney in this capacity earned them Oscars, Grammies, and, recently, the National Medal of Arts.

The brothers' story is of interest for a number of reasons. First, their prodigious output of songs that virtually everyone knows is staggering. They wrote "You're Sixteen," "Chim Chim Cheree," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Let's Get Together," "I Wan'na be Like You," and "Hushabye Mountain," among countless others. Then there's the fact that their story allows a glimpse behind the scenes at the Walt Disney Studios during the 1960s, when the studio was responsible for an increasingly varied output of motion pictures and television programming. The story of the Shermans' strained relationship adds yet another layer of interest to this documentary, which was produced and directed by their sons, Jeff (Bob) and Greg (Dick). The younger cousins would like to see their fathers reconcile, but it seems increasingly clear as we listen to the elder Shermans' words that this is unlikely, although Bob appears to be the one carrying the burden of bitterness, with Dick appearing more or less as the admiring younger brother.

The film doesn't conclude with reconciliation, and would have appeared suspicious if it had. The brothers' largely unspoken animosity is mingled with a mutual respect and obvious love, and the film works better and is more respectful of its audience without attempting too smooth over these rough edges in their relationship with facile "explanations" of the tension between them. The Boys is a heartfelt portrayal of show business, a peek into Walt Disney's managerial style, and a moving look at brotherly love and rivalry. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: A Dog Year

Jeff Bridges is often cast as characters who are gregarious, physically expressive, and energetic. In A Dog Year, he plays an inward-looking version of the real writer Jon Katz, who authored a book of the same name. HBO's film version of that story (written and directed by George LaVoo) traces a difficult period in Katz's life when he was separated from his wife, took on a new dog, and experienced a heavy dose of writer's block. The movie belongs to Bridges and the Border Collie his character adopts, Devon. At a brisk but focused 80 minutes, A Dog Year is never cutesy nor does it strive to be "family friendly." It's a character-focused story about a man who was almost impossible to get along with, whose isolation brought him face-to-face with a dog who was almost as difficult as he was.

Katz lives in a big house in New York with two Labrador retrievers. His daughter is away at college, and his wife is, well,
away. Katz lumbers around the house wearing the same thing day after day, eating crappy processed foodstuffs, and primarily engaged in the activity of not writing. He decides to spice things up by acquiring a third dog - this time through a dog rescue organization. Black-and-white Devon arrives by air, in a crate, filthy, malnourished, injured, and psychotic. Katz treats Devon with a combination of unconditional love and total bafflement. He is unable to deal with the reasons for the dog's behavior, which mirrors his block as a writer - he either refuses or is unable to look past the surface of things and grapple with the real and obvious problems.

Although the film is eminently enjoyable, there are a couple of things that bothered me. Number one is Katz's ignorance about Border Collie anxiety and behavior. As working dogs, urban and suburban Border Collies' genetic instincts make them behave fundamentally differently from almost every other breed. The fact that Katz never grasps the disconnect that a previously-abused Border Collie might experience in a new environment is beyond me.

Also problematic is the abrupt ending, which shows Katz finally getting a handle on Devon after retreating to the countryside and seeking the help of a farmer familiar with working dogs. Devon finally begins to learn something about obedience, but the film ends before we see any sustained change thro
ugh the training process, which surely must have taken some time.

But I don't want to harp on negatives, because
A Dog Year is a charming movie. Bridges is excellent, as usual, in an understated, quiet role as the grouchy, misanthropic Katz. He pinches his mouth in a frog-like frown throughout the picture, and wears the same costume almost nonstop. Bridges is always unafraid to look like shit, and this serves him particularly well here. The dog(s) playing Devon are ideal, and Devon is quite a meaty role, too, going through marked changes in behavior. Of course, more than one dog was used, but this had to have been a major challenge for writer-director LaVoo, who had to capture the right behavior from the dog-actors. Still, the total performance of "Devon" is seamless. It's an especially impressive achievement given the fact that he had to maintain the film's ultimate focus on Katz's evolution while corralling all this dog action.

A Dog Year
is a small film, but an engrossing and believable one. Films that pair animals with stars are not kindly looked upon by the film-going public, because they have endured Our Gang shorts and Oh, Heavenly Dog! and the Beethoven franchise. But A Dog Year is an adult story, told maturely, that avoids bleeding over into mere animal "hijinx" for the sake of easy laughs. Devon is as real a character as Katz, and that is an accomplishment.


On DVD: Trouble in Mind

Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind is one of those unclassifiable messes that are almost as charming as they are mystifying, but not quite - and therein lies the rub. A deluge of atmosphere that incorporates references to everything from The Maltese Falcon to Blade Runner, this neo-noir never develops its own character - which is also to say that its characters themselves are too much concerned with their respective "type" to bother with being individuals. Rudolph crafts a story that adopts plot elements from Depression-era crime pictures and high noir into a pastiche tale that never narrows its focus, choosing instead to survey a landscape that is bizarre, entertaining, and colorful, but never enthralling.

Kris Kristofferson, wearing black noir formals (suit, trench coat, fedora), emerges from prison after being locked up for several years. He plays John Hawkins, who was once a detective for the Rain City PD, but he shot a man - someone who apparently deserved it. (We don't know much more than that.) Upon his release, Hawk returns to the semi-futuristic Rain City (a wholly recognizable turn by Seattle), just as Coop and Georgia (Keith Carradine and Lori Singer), a down-on-their-luck couple from the mountains, arrive in the city as well, having decided to try their luck in a new environment. 

Carradine's character immediately slips into a life of crime, pairing up with the sleazy Solo (Joe Morton) to pull off robberies of goods that they hope to sell to a local crime lord, Hilly Blue (Divine, out of drag, channeling Sydney Greenstreet). Hawk also starts to circle Hilly, in the hope of drumming up some "extra-legal" side work. But Hawk, whose main interest appears to be getting legitimately laid after essentially raping Wanda his first night out of stir, gets caught up in the drama between Coop and Georgia, who have split. Coop, who adopts a bizarre new look, spends all his time with his gang, and Georgia has taken their infant son and moved in with Wanda. Hawk keeps an eye on her, making his intentions with regard to Georgia explicitly clear.

This is far more plot detail than I usually like to get into when writing a review, but that's really what Trouble in Mind has going for it. It's packed with story, which keeps one engaged thanks to all of the incident and oddity. Unfortunately, the characters themselves aren't what keep us interested, nor is there any sort of coherent thematic through-line. The film is a hodgepodge of goings-on and style, an agglomeration of references, moods, and jokes. Kristofferson has the right dark quality for his role, and Bujold is appropriately shadowy as the woman with "a past." In fact, everyone does well in their respective parts, particularly Divine, whose entourage includes a grotesque mute henchman straight out of a Brian De Palma movie. But the actors aren't given enough to really flex their muscles, as Rudolph is more interested in their surroundings and situations. The production design owes much to Blade Runner, which was released three years earlier; the film's look is all rain-slicked asphalt reflecting neon lights. The photography is good, but nowadays, despite an effort to restore the image for this DVD release, Trouble in Mind is hampered by degradation of the low-quality film stock prevalent at the time of its production.

Rudolph has some of the whimsy of his mentor, Robert Altman, but at least in this case he has an insufficient grasp on his characters. They are flat and do not drive the story; instead, there is a sense that the script drives the story, and it is a mannered, self-conscious script that relies on pastiche instead of emotion or even technique. 

Read the full review here

On DVD: The Other Guys

The Other Guys has a terrific cast and a promising concept, but most of the film falls flat despite much effort on the part of everyone involved. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay have made a couple of very funny movies together (Anchorman and Step Brothers), both of which always seemed on the verge of not being funny. This duo's comic sensibilities court a sense of impending failure and string audiences along on riffs that can become uncomfortably extended, but which often succeed on the basis of that very discomfort. For The Other Guys, McKay assembles a typically strong cast for a head-first dive into genre territory: action pictures. Whereas McKay and Ferrell's other films together seem to stem from character-based concepts, The Other Guys wants to embrace and enjoy specific genre conventions. As a jumping off point, the action genre hurts the film's comedy, which is forced to struggle against the tighter production demands of action sequences and a more plot-driven environment. McKay and Ferrell's usually loose, improvisational style seems burdened and curtailed by the need to cut faster and move the story forward.

Ferrell plays Det. Allen Gamble of the New York Police Department. He and his partner, Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), are desk-bound losers derided by just about everyone they work with. When the city's hero cops (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson) are killed in the line of duty, Gamble and Hoitz are given an opportunity to shine - an opportunity that they bungle at just about every turn, to the chagrin of their beleaguered captain (Michael Keaton). But they also build an incremental case against Sir David Ershon (Steve Coogan), a Bernard Madoff-style investment manager. The plot becomes a bit too twisty at this point, proceeding uncertainly and elliptically to include an appearance by Eva Mendes as Gamble's unlikely wife, and a focus on Gamble and Hoitz's strained partnership.

The film's cast list is staggering, and each performer works very, very hard, to mixed results. Keaton has some particularly good moments, but Coogan is wasted in a role that utilizes virtually none of his enormous talent. The key problem here is a sense that the cast is hemmed in by a script that relies too heavily on a standard action film structure. Based on those involved,
The Other Guys should have been a lot more inventive in terms of stretching and subverting action clichés; instead, it sticks too closely to the demands of action movie pacing, wrecking the ability of these great comic performers to create something new within those boundaries. The Other Guys wants to get through scenes quickly, establish plot points, and build to action scenes.

This is unfortunate because the raw material and comic instincts are here - they just aren't allowed to develop and play out the way they should have. McKay is too concerned about getting to the next scene in trying to manage a script over-laden with plot points. Some jokes work extremely well, including the demise of the Jackson and Johnson characters, and several other bits.
The Other Guys doesn't fall flat, it's just not the success that it should have been. 


On DVD: Eat Pray Love

Eat Pray Love is a movie for idiots, about an idiot. It is about a woman with no tangible complaints in life who creates a best-selling mid-life crisis for herself. But Elizabeth Gilbert and Julia Roberts can't fool me. Despite their obvious effort, they cannot create a character worth spending 140 minutes with. The reason they fail on a credible artistic level is the same reason that the book upon which the film was based was so successful: the Elizabeth Gilbert depicted in the film is a brainless invertebrate with no consideration for anyone but herself. Her lack of qualities is, I'm sure, exactly what droves of self-medicating pseudo-intellectuals found so appealing about her story of unromantic love, gluttonous consumption, and phony spiritual experiences. But my experience was different.

That's probably because I don't identify with a woman who has a rewarding career, a house in New York City, and a vibrant social life - but desperately needs to give it all up. I don't identify with a person whose chief struggle in life is a sudden need to travel around the world, visit exotic places, and grapple with languages and global cuisine. I don't identify with the soulless idiocy that might drive a person to consider this type of situation a "crisis," nor do I empathize with those who make poor life choices and then simply walk away from them. I don't identify with a life of unappreciated privilege or the type of ignorance that romanticizes foreign locales, especially those where the standard of life is significantly lower than ours, as places of unmitigated wonder and mystical possibility. I don't identify with these things because they are all signs of delusion, signs of a personality with no self-knowledge or comprehension of life's endless variety. I don't identify with these ways of looking at things because they comprise some of the chief defects of our society, defects that are coddled by an economy whose foundation rests upon its ability to convince people to use anything and everything including books, pills, sports, religion, entertainment, and even our own friends and family as mere medication. It's impossible to deny the importance of each of these things in a rich, well-rounded life, but people like Gilbert are searching for answers, desperately, in all the wrong places. They seek external "explanations" for things that only happen internally. The unwarranted dependence upon "solutions" that come from outside our own brains and experiences is the ill itself, not a path to happiness.

Eat Pray Love is not just philosophically misguided, but it bears the fervent incuriosity of the recent convert - the unquestioning conviction that it is depicting a genuine revelation-in-progress, when what it actually portrays is a woman who is so self-involved, so utterly unaware of the ways in which her actions affect others, and so deeply deluded by the kind of provincial ignorance that only affects certain New Yorkers, that she actually believes her behavior is selfless instead of selfish. In this way, the film communicates a message that is the exact inverse of what it thinks it's delivering. Director and co-scripter Ryan Murphy takes Gilbert at her word, translating the best-selling book to film as if it were gospel, never once questioning Gilbert's motives for going on this "journey," let alone writing a book about it that just happens to be an agglomeration of several highly trendy best-selling topics in one sugary narrative. Murphy shows a technical facility that goes hand-in-glove with the story's aggressively romanticized search for pleasure: the entire film is suffused with golden light, regardless of location, even in the scenes shot in New York. The photography is pleasing, but it's also manipulative, just like the rest of the movie, which tries so hard to convince us that Gilbert was experiencing a crisis that could only be resolved by grotesque indulgence in luxury.

Julia Roberts doesn't improve matters, displaying her boundless capacity for making sheer lunacy appear attractive, at least for a second. But Roberts has nothing behind her eyes other than an interest in making certain facial expressions over and over again, movie after movie, particularly that smile that says, "I get everything I want. Too bad no one else does!" Her performance in this movie embodies no one other than an over-indulged celebrity - which, perhaps, may be the case with the post-Eat Pray Love Gilbert. She certainly got what she wanted. It's not every day that a journey into self-discovery ends with a huge-selling book and a movie deal. What a lucky coincidence for her. 

Read the full review here


Excerpt: A Portrait of the Successful American Male: Judge Pyncheon

Please welcome today's guest blogger: Nathaniel Hawthorne.  About 160 years ago, in his novel The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne wrote the definitive description of the perilous cost of fiscal and social success in America.  Further commentary would only reduce the impact and beauty of Hawthorne's work:

"The Judge, beyond all question, was a man of eminent respectability. The church acknowledged it; the state acknowledged it. It was denied by nobody. In all the very extensive sphere of those who knew him, whether in his public or private capacities, there was not an individual—except Hepzibah, and some lawless mystic, like the daguerreotypist, and, possibly, a few political opponents—who would have dreamed of seriously disputing his claim to a high and honorable place in the world's regard. Nor (we must do him the further justice to say) did Judge Pyncheon himself, probably, entertain many or very frequent doubts, that his enviable reputation accorded with his deserts. His conscience, therefore, usually considered the surest witness to a man's integrity,—his conscience, unless it might be for the little space of five minutes in the twenty-four hours, or, now and then, some black day in the whole year's circle,—his conscience bore an accordant testimony with the world's laudatory voice. And yet, strong as this evidence may seem to be, we should hesitate to peril our own conscience on the assertion, that the Judge and the consenting world were right, and that poor Hepzibah with her solitary prejudice was wrong. Hidden from mankind,—forgotten by himself, or buried so deeply under a sculptured and ornamented pile of ostentatious deeds that his daily life could take no note of it,—there may have lurked some evil and unsightly thing. Nay, we could almost venture to say, further, that a daily guilt might have been acted by him, continually renewed, and reddening forth afresh, like the miraculous blood-stain of a murder, without his necessarily and at every moment being aware of it. 

"Men of strong minds, great force of character, and a hard texture of the sensibilities, are very capable of falling into mistakes of this kind. They are ordinarily men to whom forms are of paramount importance. Their field of action lies among the external phenomena of life. They possess vast ability in grasping, and arranging, and appropriating to themselves, the big, heavy, solid unrealities, such as gold, landed estate, offices of trust and emolument, and public honors. With these materials, and with deeds of goodly aspect, done in the public eye, an individual of this class builds up, as it were, a tall and stately edifice, which, in the view of other people, and ultimately in his own view, is no other than the man's character, or the man himself. Behold, therefore, a palace! Its splendid halls and suites of spacious apartments are floored with a mosaic-work of costly marbles; its windows, the whole height of each room, admit the sunshine through the most transparent of plate-glass; its high cornices are gilded, and its ceilings gorgeously painted; and a lofty dome—through which, from the central pavement, you may gaze up to the sky, as with no obstructing medium between—surmounts the whole. With what fairer and nobler emblem could any man desire to shadow forth his character? Ah! but in some low and obscure nook,—some narrow closet on the ground-floor, shut, locked and bolted, and the key flung away,—or beneath the marble pavement, in a stagnant water-puddle, with the richest pattern of mosaic-work above,—may lie a corpse, half decayed, and still decaying, and diffusing its death-scent all through the palace! The inhabitant will not be conscious of it, for it has long been his daily breath! Neither will the visitors, for they smell only the rich odors which the master sedulously scatters through the palace, and the incense which they bring, and delight to burn before him! Now and then, perchance, comes in a seer, before whose sadly gifted eye the whole structure melts into thin air, leaving only the hidden nook, the bolted closet, with the cobwebs festooned over its forgotten door, or the deadly hole under the pavement, and the decaying corpse within. Here, then, we are to seek the true emblem of the man's character, and of the deed that gives whatever reality it possesses to his life. And, beneath the show of a marble palace, that pool of stagnant water, foul with many impurities, and, perhaps, tinged with blood,—that secret abomination, above which, possibly, he may say his prayers, without remembering it,—is this man's miserable soul! 

"To apply this train of remark somewhat more closely to Judge Pyncheon. We might say (without in the least imputing crime to a personage of his eminent respectability) that there was enough of splendid rubbish in his life to cover up and paralyze a more active and subtile conscience than the Judge was ever troubled with. The purity of his judicial character, while on the bench; the faithfulness of his public service in subsequent capacities; his devotedness to his party, and the rigid consistency with which he had adhered to its principles, or, at all events, kept pace with its organized movements; his remarkable zeal as president of a Bible society; his unimpeachable integrity as treasurer of a widow's and orphan's fund; his benefits to horticulture, by producing two much esteemed varieties of the pear and to agriculture, through the agency of the famous Pyncheon bull; the cleanliness of his moral deportment, for a great many years past; the severity with which he had frowned upon, and finally cast off, an expensive and dissipated son, delaying forgiveness until within the final quarter of an hour of the young man's life; his prayers at morning and eventide, and graces at meal-time; his efforts in furtherance of the temperance cause; his confining himself, since the last attack of the gout, to five diurnal glasses of old sherry wine; the snowy whiteness of his linen, the polish of his boots, the handsomeness of his gold-headed cane, the square and roomy fashion of his coat, and the fineness of its material, and, in general, the studied propriety of his dress and equipment; the scrupulousness with which he paid public notice, in the street, by a bow, a lifting of the hat, a nod, or a motion of the hand, to all and sundry of his acquaintances, rich or poor; the smile of broad benevolence wherewith he made it a point to gladden the whole world,—what room could possibly be found for darker traits in a portrait made up of lineaments like these? This proper face was what he beheld in the looking-glass. This admirably arranged life was what he was conscious of in the progress of every day. Then might not he claim to be its result and sum, and say to himself and the community, 'Behold Judge Pyncheon there'? 

"And allowing that, many, many years ago, in his early and reckless youth, he had committed some one wrong act,—or that, even now, the inevitable force of circumstances should occasionally make him do one questionable deed among a thousand praiseworthy, or, at least, blameless ones,—would you characterize the Judge by that one necessary deed, and that half-forgotten act, and let it overshadow the fair aspect of a lifetime? What is there so ponderous in evil, that a thumb's bigness of it should outweigh the mass of things not evil which were heaped into the other scale! This scale and balance system is a favorite one with people of Judge Pyncheon's brotherhood. A hard, cold man, thus unfortunately situated, seldom or never looking inward, and resolutely taking his idea of himself from what purports to be his image as reflected in the mirror of public opinion, can scarcely arrive at true self-knowledge, except through loss of property and reputation. Sickness will not always help him do it; not always the death-hour!"

On DVD: Cairo Time

Cairo Time is a thoughtful, understated, well-photographed character piece anchored by a good performance by an appealing actress. In the lead, Patricia Clarkson gives a quiet, lovely performance, as is her tendency. Writer-director Ruba Nadda's script is sensitive and subtly searching, and her direction is elegant without being slick. As a character piece, it requires, more than the average genre picture, that we feel that we know something about the protagonist. At first, it seems as though Nadda is perhaps a touch too aloof in her approach to Clarkson's character. But Cairo Time admirably constructs its two lead characters over time, rather than rushing to etch them too firmly at the outset.

Clarkson plays Juliette, a magazine editor who arrives in Cairo looking to reconnect with her husband, a UN staffer who is delayed in Israel due to fighting in Gaza. She ends up whiling away the days waiting for him in the city, often in the company of her husband's friend, Tareq (Alexander Siddig). Tareq is a gentlemanly bachelor who remains tactfully aloof during their outings, despite his obvious attraction to her - and to her foreign-ness. 

Cairo Time has something in common with David Lean's Summertime from 1954, but it's tone is different, and it's charged with the concerns and politics of our own time. Nadda invests Juliette with a fairly naive grasp of recent global events and cultural tensions; this is clever work, as it forces viewers to test their own assumptions against Juliette's naiveté and weigh whether or not we are too prejudiced. Still, the film has a light touch in this area, never even approaching the brow-beating we commonly receive from movies that wish to prove a point. That light touch is assisted by the gorgeous photography, which is fluid and expressive without being too romantic or fussy. There's no use of soft-focus here. This isn't Eay Pray Love by any means. Cairo Time is shot with confident simple beauty that reflects a classic sensibility in terms of photographing a story.

Juliette is an observer, and there's a Jim Jarmusch quality to her ramblings and wanderings, her exposure to a new way of life, and her quiet growth throughout the course of the story. Clarkson is the Blossom Dearie of actresses. She's blonde, petite, and quiet. Everything she does is deeply felt but gently communicated. She has good taste and poise, and an old-fashioned grace. Here, Clarkson suggests tastefully masked reservoirs of emotion that she and Nadda only hint at during carefully timed moments. For all that, Cairo Time never feels contrived or overworked. The film suggests the hard work that went into it only inasmuch as it all comes off so well. Siddig is also very good, portraying a man similar to Juliette in his sense of dignity and allegiance to good taste and principled behavior. He is a charming, modest old soul who prefers his own concept of rectitude over life's many temptations. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: I'm Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix's and Casey Affleck's "film" I'm Still Here has one mildly amusing inside joke in it, and that is its title, and that particular play on words will only be meaningful to those who saw Todd Haynes' daring and difficult cinematic treatment of the life and personae of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There. That the joke isn't even all that funny even to those who've seen the Haynes film is only the tip of the iceberg. I'm Still Here is an offensive, suffocatingly smug and self-satisfied piece of faux-introversion that gifts those patient enough to sit through its entirety with the kind of obscene lack of thought one might associate with frat house gang rape - which isn't unrelated to the way one feels after watching it. Phoenix and Affleck are both talented actors who I generally enjoy watching on-screen. Here, they have fallen victim to the single most common mistake made by actors who unwisely reach beyond their given talents: they believed that they knew something about how to tell a story. I'm Still Here proves a whole slew of negative stereotypes about actors, and may very well occasion a renewed interest in dismissing them as a group of infantile chauvinists who relish their own creative byproducts the way pigs relish bathing in their own shit.

A couple of years ago, Joaquin Phoenix, working with co-writer, co-producer, and director Casey Affleck, staged a surprisingly elaborate hoax in which he claimed to be re-inventing himself as a hip-hop artist. Physically, he underwent a transformation that found him looking quite unlike any previously known rapper: a paunchy Phoenix let his hair go and grew a bushy, unruly beard. The hoax never really got beyond the "what's this about Joaquin Phoenix becoming a rapper?" stage, and neither does the film, which documents the hoax with a straight face, pretending that this artistic transformation is really happening.

Only a duo with the combined Hollywood credentials of Phoenix and Affleck could have roped "guest stars" such as Sean "P-Diddy" Combs and David Letterman into the proceedings, which helps invest the film with the weight of legitimacy. A prologue featuring purported archival footage of Phoenix performing with his siblings as a child, and the vérité shooting style, also help generate a sense that Something Interesting must be happening here. However, a baffling and pointless interest in showing male genitalia and some raunchy "crazy musician" behavior thrown in for good measure merely remind us that this is amateur hour at its worst.

But alas, that isn't the worst thing about I'm Still Here. The worst thing about it is its total lack of purpose. If this is all just a big joke, as we now know it to be, whither the hoax? What does it reveal or perpetrate that is in any way significant or meaningful? Is there a satirical angle here? I don't believe there is. Maybe the point was that Joaquin Phoenix got the most press of his life for simply acting like an asshole. That's kind of funny, but it doesn't merit making me watch a film that highlights the exhibition of his jiggly midsection and several penises flopping haphazardly about. I don't believe there is anything to "get" in I'm Still Here, because all it is is a couple of distracted fooles playing around with equipment they haven't the slightest interest in using appropriately. If filmmaking were masturbation, Phoenix and Affleck would win the Oscar for Best Circle Jerk. 

On DVD: Countdown to Zero

I went to elementary school in the early to mid-1980s, the heart of the Reagan era, during which time duck-and-cover drills were conducted approximately once a quarter. These exercises will still be familiar to California schoolchildren, where they are applicable in the event of an earthquake. But "duck-and-cover" grew out of another, more dire fear - nuclear bombardment. (For the sake of discussion, let's pass over the exponential disparity between the relative benefits of hiding under one's desk during an earthquake versus during almost guaranteed annihilation.) It's only been about 25 years since duck-and-cover drills - or any other routine exercise of preparedness for nuclear attack - have been a regular part of American life. Their diminution coincided immediately with the conclusion of the Cold War, a largely fictitious "conflict" that consisted of a series of fantastic narratives told to us by our government (and by other governments to their populations) that pitted mainly the US and the USSR against each other in a deadly struggle to prevent each other from exploding a nuclear bomb - something neither nation ever intended to do. When the Cold War ended, nuclear weapons were utterly forgotten, and in the space of no more than five years, the threat of a nuclear holocaust - a dominant feature of global discussion for four solid decades - simply evaporated.

Of course, now we face other, more imminent and obvious threats, although there is also a sense that these, too, are nonetheless overplayed by the enforcers of "safety" that we elect to public office. But these newer threats both conceal and intersect with the quietly persistent danger of nuclear weapons, and Lucy Walker's skillful and responsible documentary does us the invaluable service of bringing our heads out of the cloudy smoke screen of "terror" and back to a certain level of reality. Countdown to Zero recounts how we came by nuclear weapons, their role in the last half century of global affairs, and the continued post-perestroika threat that they present - in our own hands, in the hands of our allies, and in the hands of non-aligned states and their potential use by terrorists.

Far from being alarmist or propagandistic, Countdown to Zero is a sober film that includes a multitude of voices, including some who once believed in the strategic value of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. We also hear from scientists, journalists and historians, and former heads of state, including Mikhail Gorbachev. The film cribs its structure from President Kennedy's famous address to the United Nations on the topic of nuclear weapons: "Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."

The film is divided into sections roughly organized around the three factors included in the phrase "by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness." These sections examine the history of nuclear technology, the stakes of the Cold War, the ease with which military nukes can be deployed (and the ease with which relatively simple communications errors can lead to a launch), the mechanics by which terrorist organizations could obtain and use a nuclear device, and the exact countries that have nuclear weapons and the approximate total number that exist. Walker assembles a variety of talking heads, some of whose contributions are plain and direct (Valerie Plame, Ahmed Rashid), and some of whom seem merely self-serving (Tony Blair, Pervez Musharraf). But the specifics are urgent and compelling - the story of inter-agency quarrels that led to American nuclear enable codes all being set to zero during the height of the Cold War is all too credible.

Walker's film has a very plain message, a refreshing boldness of purpose that puts Michael Moore's condescending and unappealing films to shame. Countdown to Zero is a reasonably apolitical film that brings us back to brass tacks on the subject of nuclear weapons, which will remain the direst of threats until they are verifiably eliminated from the face of the earth. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: The Complete Metropolis

At age 83, Fritz Lang's Metropolis has been given a new lease on life. Not that it needed it, exactly. Lang's immensely influential vision of a dystopic future society had enjoyed a full restoration of its known elements in 2001, playing theatrically to much fanfare. I saw it for this first time that year, on the big screen. I was totally dumbstruck by the movie as a technical and visual achievement, and as a moving, involving story. To that point, I had viewed silent films more or less as interesting curiosities, films that lacked a crucial communicative element; movies from the pre-sound era seemed handicapped or unfinished. Seeing Metropolis for the first time, I realized that silence could be used, even embraced, by filmmakers who had mastered this very specific form of the medium to tell stories in ways that sound films could not and never did again after the release of The Jazz Singer in 1928 - the film that destroyed an art form in the name of technological progress. 

For me, seeing Metropolis carried the realization that silent films were capable of a very specific kind of storytelling unavailable in any other medium - the highly physical acting, the use of music as a kind of "narrator," the development of camera movement and other photographic techniques - among other stylistic devices, these marked the silent film era as the period in which people taught themselves how to tell stories on film. Since seeing Metropolis a decade ago, I have delved deeper into the silent era and have fallen in love with Pandora's Box, Sunrise, The Kid, and Asphalt, among others, and have learned that the silent era was much like our own - in the sense that most of the films were bad, but they were also capable of being as masterful as anything we might expect from the great filmmakers of any age. Metropolis towers above most of its peers.

Famously cut upon its original release (the film was a financial failure), a fully-restored Metropolis was thought to be impossible - and probably is. But a huge step in that direction was made in 2008, when a nearly-complete 16mm dupe negative was discovered in an Argentine film archive. Previously missing footage - amounting to about 25 minutes' worth - was edited back into the already-restored 2001 cut. The reinstatement of this footage rounds off the film's heretofore jagged narrative edges. The whole thing plays significantly better, providing numerous contextual shots, plus a few longer sequences that clarify plot mechanics, and character dynamics. Given that the restored footage comes from a degraded 16mm source, its aspect ratio is slightly altered, and damage to the negative is obvious, despite an intensive year-long restoration process.

Lang's narrative takes us to an unnamed future city called Metropolis. Presided over by master architect Joh Frederson, the city is operated by an army of drones who, with their families, live and work deep underground. Above ground, only the privileged and wealthy see sunlight, living lives of frivolity and ignorance. Frederson's son, Freder (ugh!), begins to wonder about these unseen workers after a beautiful woman named Maria appears above ground one day with a group of workers' children. She is sent away, but the sensitive Freder pursues her and discovers the underground world of the workers and the gigantic machines that they operate. When Frederson discovers his son's newfound empathy for the plight of the exploited workers (what an undergrad!), he sets in motion a plot to tear the workers' movement apart from the inside. Frederson enlists the mad inventor Rotwang and his proto-robot, the Machine-Man, which he disguises as Maria, who is also the workers' spiritual leader. The Machine-Man, in Maria's guise, foments a violent revolution, which Frederson intends to use as justification to bring the workers more firmly under his thumb.

The storyline of Metropolis is philosophically muddled, demonstrating a naïve and incomplete command of the socio-political "machinery" it means to discuss. There is a strange, unexplained reliance on Christian imagery and allegory that doesn't exactly mesh with the film's already otherworldly setting. As a character, Maria is strongly mystical at some moments and incredibly vulnerable at others. Freder comes off as an over-the-top bleeding heart with no real charisma, although he redeems himself through direct action in the picture's final act.

But Metropolis's successes massively outweigh these thematic weaknesses. Despite being cast as under-developed characters, Brigitte Helm and Gustav Frohlich shine as Maria/Machine-Man and Freder, respectively. Helm is particularly fascinating when she takes on the part of the Machine-Man-as-Maria, head twitching mechanically in gestures that come off as creepy and surprisingly un-human. The other performers are good, too, including Alfred Abel as the moody, powerful Frederson, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, the mad inventor. 

But really this is Lang's show all the way. Metropolis is a powerhouse of Deco-era design, evident in everything from the sets and background paintings, down to the costumes and smaller décor. There's the M-Machine, which Freder envisions as Moloch, a demon that actually consumes workers whole with a mouth filled with fire. There's Frederson's office, a sparsely-furnished model of the Deco era's love of space and flatness. There are the multi-matte shots of Metropolis itself, with Frederson's New Tower of Babel dominating the skyline, replete with elevated highways and a variety of flying vehicles. There is the Machine-Man, that iconic centerpiece of the film's design sense, a sculpted femme-bot with flared forearms and hip joints, and an electro-charged life-giving aura.

Lang's command of the film's huge sets - and how to place and move the camera within them to create a sense of space and action - is supreme, particularly in the context of the silent era. Silent films tend to feel physically stiff - Lang's gigantic environments allow actors to move freely, creating more credible settings and situations. Silent films love to place women in peril, of course, and an unopenable door often spells doom. In Metropolis, Maria is chased by Rotwang at one point, and she isn't just prevented from opening a single door, but a whole hallway of them, and when the doors don't open, she finds other means of escape. This pattern continues, with the actors moving through one large set into another, as one means of escape leads to another moment of impending danger - it's an incredibly fluid, tense sequence that utilizes huge resources in the service of masterfully-escalated suspense that is more involving and more realistic than the average chase - then or now.

Metropolis is enormously involving from beginning to end, even at its longer restored length of 149 minutes. A gripping plot, a gallery of individuated characters, endless visual delight, and a monumentally ambitious production scale don't just maintain our interest but make us stop to think about the prodigious skill and conceptual balls it took to pull it all off. The restoration leaves the story feeling fuller and better-shaped than any previous cut. Add in a new recording of Gottfried Huppertz's original 1927 score in 5.1 surround, and this Metropolis is easily the biggest cinematic event of 2010. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: Sex and the City: The Complete Collection

What a bizarre phenomenon Sex and the City was. Beginning on HBO in 1998, the series' setting tells us everything we need to know about it: late 1990s New York. In other words, right smack dab in the middle of New York's Giuliani era, a time when the streets were cleaned up and made safe for young women to leave their apartments dressed exactly as they pleased. Now that Times Square's pornographic smorgasbord had been transmogrified into a family-friendly Walt Disney spectacle, ladies of means were unaware of the ironic circumstances that freed their vaginas in ways that the fear of rape had previously prevented. Also, this was before 9/11, when New York became a TARGET and a focal point in America's newfound suspicion of Muslims (a suspicion that was slow to creep its way into the world of Sex and the City, showing up in the second feature film in an extremely uncomfortable form). 

The first three-and-a-half seasons of the series were about young women in a wonderland vision of pre-9/11 New York, an extraordinarily decadent time and place that enabled the frivolous, dream-like lifestyles of these four amoral characters and rewarded viewers with that particularly insidious form of self-hate that only indulgence by proxy can produce. But the show did capture a certain reality -- these characters lived fantasy lives that were not wholly untenable during that time. When I moved to New York in 2000, I experienced some of the intoxication that Carrie Bradshaw often feels in the show, and it wasn't just because I was a kid from the suburbs living in the Big City -- it was because it was a time of great wealth, confidence, and indulgence. The technology boom had enormous influence on New York's economy, and everyone seemed to be riding high in spite of the fact that the bubble was about to burst. So I can't fault the show's first few seasons as far as their embrace and glorification of that period, because that is what the times were about: spending shitloads of money on utterly needless things and going wild in the streets with frenzied abandon.

What is odd, however, is the consistency of the show's tone over the next two-and-a-half seasons, or the series' post-9/11 period. Carrie and her three compatriots hardly acknowledge the events of that date (there are one or two fleeting references). Couple 9/11 itself with the economic problems that were already developing, and there was no way of escaping the fact that the 1990s were unmistakably over. But Sex and the City never acknowledged this. The show continued to showcase lavish behavior at its most indiscreet, heedless of the demands of money, or the fear that gripped New York for years after the day of the attacks. In this way, Sex and the City morphed from a fantasy rooted in reality to a delusional daydream, and this willful denial on the part of the show's creators and characters built into a crazed explosion of whorish decadence by the time the series reached the big screen. By this point, the characters themselves had been abandoned and replaced by caricatures of flamboyant drag queens on holiday.

So the show began as a social portrait of a particular moment, but when that moment passed, it never adjusted, leaving its characters looking deluded and incredibly trivial. But I was never the show's target audience, which will lend any review I write a certain prejudicial cast, at least in the eyes of its most devoted fans. Still, notwithstanding the somewhat philosophical objections above, I enjoyed much of the series. The show's strength was in its ability to create odd situations, to carry off a certain witty flair, and to keep even a 30-ish married hetero male interested enough to finish off all six seasons. 

The movies, however, are, as I suggested above, another story. They are nothing less than grotesque self-parody, abandoning the series' character-based approach to storytelling, and veering unwaveringly into the high camp we associate with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Myra Breckenridge. In the first film we see Chris Noth's Mr. Big behave in an incredible out-of-character manner when he gets momentary cold feet. This kind of fundamental character inconsistency is a trademark of both films, which fling all plausibility out the window in favor of hyper-lush accoutrement, exotic settings, and bodily fluid jokes. 

I felt strongly about including another voice in this review, given that my own fairly strident opinion represents a decidedly male viewpoint and because the show has such a devoted following. So I decided to interview the member of that following to whom I happen to be married.

He: I understand that you are a fan of Sex and the City. When did you starting watching it?

She: I started watching it sometime in 2001. The first episode I saw was the one where Carrie goes to Los Angeles. After I saw that episode I rented the first season and started watching it from the beginning.

He: Okay, a quick Wikipedia search tells me that the LA episodes were in 2000. It was the third season. Those were good episodes.

She: Yes. I watched them on DVD at my friend Madeline's house in LA.

He: Perfect. You probably thought you were going to run into McConaughey at Starbucks. Hoping.

She: Yeah, that dreamboat.

He: So what appealed to you about the show? And what kept you watching all six seasons?

She: I was single at the time, so initially it was funny because the girls on the show were having a lot of the same dating problems my friends and I were having. I watched the first three seasons with my roommate at the time, Becca, and we both identified with the "bad date" thing the show did so well at the beginning. As the show progressed, so did the characters, and it became less about being single and more about their relationships with each other and the men in their lives.

He: So you could find parallels in your own life and the lives of your friends, and so you identified with some of this stuff.

She: Sure, like you would identify with any comedy. It is only funny when there is some truth to it.

He: But women respond differently to Sex and the City than men do. I always thought the show was pretty funny, and enjoyed it when it succeeded in the storytelling department. I found the main characters quite grating, however, and often had a hard time empathizing with them and their "struggles." Did you like the characters?

She: When we watched the whole show together all at once, I definitely grew more irritated with the characters than I did when I only saw a few episodes at a time. When I first started watching, we were renting discs, one by one. I think there were four episodes per disc, so it forced us to take a break and watch it over a longer period of time. The second time around it definitely got hard to watch Samantha have sex over and over and over again. It is different watching a character do that over a span of six years vs. a few weeks. But yes, I liked the characters. Carrie was annoying at times, but her flaws created much of the plot. She was also the easiest to identify with in a sense because she was the least exaggerated character on the show, so she had that working in her favor even when I was frustrated by her.

He: Sure. What did you make of the male characters on the show? Were they as realistic as the females? Were they treated the same?

She: The show definitely gave the women the power. The exaggerated male characters mostly came off as kind of sad and idiotic. They never really got into what the men on the show were thinking, so you never really empathized with them.

He: I was put off by the grotesque indulgence of the female characters, which contradicted all of their moaning about how tricky men were. I mean, maybe a shallow woman who gets all excited about $900 shoes and has to have them doesn't deserve her Mr. Wonderful. I also thought it was bizarre that when Carrie and her friends are together, their mouths are like these confused flapping gab-holes, but then when Carrie sits down at her computer, she's full of this sudden wisdom, like some spoiled white Oprah.

She: I don't think the show was meant to be realistic. The behavior and lifestyles of the characters were an exaggerated fantasy. The point was that every girl loves her shoes and has splurged at one time or another when she shouldn't have. I think one of the reasons the show was so popular is that it was the first time a television show really sided with the women's point of view. In a lot of ways I think that Sex and the City did for women what Playboy did for men in the 1950s. It allowed us not to feel guilty for wanting $900 shoes, hating baby showers, and resenting married friends. Playboy did the same thing for men who did not want to have a family. Both things idealized a lifestyle that had previously been seen as sad or taboo.

He: I think those points are really good. Let's move on to the movies. Did you feel they were a fair continuation of the series?

She: Sure. I know the second one got terrible reviews but i thought they both stayed true to the series. I think the problem with the movies is that the actresses had gotten so old. It was depressing seeing them act the same way as they did ten years ago

He: Yes, and the characters didn't mature.

She: Exactly right. The characters did not evolve.

He: I had a problem with Big's behavior in the first one. His momentary "cold feet" set the whole plot in motion, but it was so unlike him.

She: Agreed, I thought that part was out of character as well. I wished they had thought of a different way to get to the same point. I thought about it afterward and it was really important that the audience empathize with him so they could forgive him afterward.

He: What about the second movie? It seems like it was made only for gay men.

She: The whole show was made for gay men, by gay men.

Me: Do you hope there will be another movie?

She: I don't really care. The series seems kind of done to me. I'm not sure what else they could do with it without abandoning the whole idea of the show.

He: Maybe they could wait 20 years and do one where they are all grandmothers and get trapped inside a posh estate with a murderer for a weekend.

She: Yeah, maybe you don't know whether or not Big did it, but Carrie is accusing him.

He: Yeah, maybe Big could kill Steve. Yelling, "Shut up, you whiner!" while bludgeoning him.

She: Right. And Charlotte could be trying to calm everyone down.

He: With tea and cakes. I think if there's another Sex and the City movie, all four leads should have to show their vaginas. You know, to "close the loop."

She: Gross.

He: The whole show is about vaginae and you never see one. It's a cop out.

She: It was on TV, Casey. Television


On DVD: The A-Team

I was all set to make excuses for the unremarkable action of The A-Team on the grounds that it is harmless; but nothing that occupies two hours of your life for no particular reason is necessarily "harmless." The A-Team requires little discussion, little description, and is best enjoyed on a beer-infused Saturday afternoon. It's a well-cast retread, souped up with some outrageous pyrotechnics and a plot that tries to be twisty and topical. Given the film's source, it was never going to be a classic. But it works as a tribute or remake of the series, capturing the fuck-it-all playfulness of '80s action, and director Joe Carnahan works hard to maintain our interest with a solid visual sense and absurd but well-handled set pieces. The actors enjoy themselves, too, which helps us have a good time even when we're rolling our eyes (which is often).

Stephen J. Cannell's hyper-destructive group of mercenaries is recast as a ragtag bunch of Army Rangers who get caught up in a scheme to recover plates from a mint used by Saddam Hussein to counterfeit American currency. Amid inter-agency bickering, the plan is thwarted by an evil group of military contractors (read: Blackwater), who seize the plates and kill the operation's authorizing general (Gerald McRaney). And here comes the ol' frame-up, disgracing our heroes, who are stripped of their ranks and thrown in prison. A shady CIA operative known as Lynch (Patrick Wilson) comes to their "rescue," however, with an offer to arrange for each of the four to escape from prison if they promise to recover the stolen plates. Seeing an opportunity to avenge his friend, the murdered general, Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) agrees to the scheme and helps break Faceman (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), and Murdoch (Sharlto Copley) out of their respective correctional facilities.

The characterizations are fairly consistent with the personalities we came to know through the original series. Neeson's Hannibal is grizzled and weathered, chomps cigars, and tosses off occasional one-liners, although he does so with less mugging and bravado than George Peppard. Cooper's Faceman is a bastion of self-confidence and baseless charm, marginally winning us over with his sheer disregard of all danger and protocol. Copley musters a passable "Southern" accent and exhibits what appears to be a strong improvisational ability as the loose cannon Murdoch. As B.A. Baracus, Jackson is the weak link. He lacks the charisma and ferocity of Mr. T. is famous for, and comes off as inarticulate and bland.

Plot-wise, The A-Team strives to land somewhere between an episode of the original series and the Bourne thrillers. There are at least one too many layers of intrigue, which come across as obligatory anyway. Why not just set up a villain and have the group go after him (or her)? That kind of directness usually works best in action pictures, especially ones with ambitious set pieces. Director Carnahan handles these with wit and a good sense of space, even when they are totally cartoonish (i.e., the scene with the airborne tank). Unfortunately, the final action sequence is the weakest - its staging is clunky, almost veering into Michael Bay territory, and is further hampered by some terrible CGI work. 

The musical score by Alan Silvestri strays too far from the martial themes of the original series for my taste; the electronics are jarring and oddly inappropriate somehow. But the supporting cast is quite good, particularly the likable Wilson as the iffy CIA operative, and McRaney as the slain general. Jessica Biel is just absurd as a military attache to the State Department. Keep an eye out for a bizarrely brief cameo by Jon Hamm.

Note: Fox's DVD includes two versions of the film - the theatrical version (118 minutes) and a longer "Extended Cut" (133 minutes). I did not see the movie in theaters, and chose the longer cut for my first go at The A Team. Although there were no particular passages of the film that felt extraneous, I felt that the film was "fat" overall. I suspect very strongly that the shorter theatrical version plays better in terms of pacing. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

In just seven years as a practicing artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat produced over 2,000 works and made himself enormous amounts of money, gaining praise and notoriety as the defining artist of the early to mid-1980s. In Tamra Davis's absorbing new documentary, the layers of his legacy are examined and carefully demystified, from his shadowy beginnings as a graffiti artist known only (at that time) as "SAMO" to the height of his fame as a painter whose gallery sales commanded huge sums, through his final sad years, marked by drug use, paranoia, and withdrawal from public life. Basquiat emerges as a fascinating and complicated human being, somewhat de-romanticized by Davis, and made difficult through discussion of his less charming qualities, but whose accomplishments as an artist continue to bloom as new angles of interest and significance in his work come to light.

Davis opens her film with never-before-seen interview footage of Basquiat that she and a friend shot about two years before the artist's death. In this footage, Basquiat speaks openly and frankly about himself, his work, his peers, and his critics. He comes off as mildly uncomfortable, even though this was essentially a private video made with friends. He doesn't relish discussing his work, and betrays a certain amount of bitterness about his position in the art world. Although a success - even a sensation - in his own time, there was a sense amid the media frenzy over the artist and his work that Basquiat was an oddity, a "special case," coddled by the liberal art world establishment, a situation specifically highlighted by the otherwise clueless Hilton Kramer in archival interview footage. But Basquiat seemed aware of this, and that, beyond the perceived value of his art itself, there were those around him who benefitted socially and financially from turning him into a celebrity. 

More than two decades after his death, Basquiat is broadly regarded as one of the most influential artists in recent memory, if not the entire twentieth century. His colorful, semi-abstract expressionist paintings feature recurring, recognizable motifs that stem from Basquiat's interest in politics, social justice, jazz music, Black American history, and human anatomy, all interwoven with painted text. Basquiat is famous for having become close with Andy Warhol during the Pop Art pioneer's final years; Warhol died at a time when their relationship had become strained over the famous failure of their collaborative exhibition. Warhol's unexpected death prevented Basquiat from reconnecting with his dear friend and was a contributing factor in Basquiat's own decline immediately thereafter.

Davis does an excellent job of untangling Basquiat's considerable legacy from the distancing threads of mythologizing, politicizing, hype-making, and romanticizing that occurred both during the artist's life and afterward. Davis shows us Basquiat at work in his studio, a precocious and intelligent artist capable of tapping into deep mental and emotional resources, a keen awareness of history, and a voracious consumption of cultural produce. His paintings are far removed from the crass, commercially-minded hoopla orchestrated to "sell" the artist to the public by his handlers and the media; the irony is that the prices fetched by his paintings are far more a result of this "inside sales" work by gallerists and dealers than they are a product of the artist's own self-promotion, and yet those prices are exactly the evidence used by Basquiat's critics to discredit him as a mere media celebrity. But Basquiat worked alone and was furiously productive; he worked to sell, it's true, but his paintings are remarkably consistent. His vision rarely falters into simplicity or bears any other traces of having been compromised for the sake of speed and income.

Davis includes new interviews with many of Basquiat's contemporaries, including artists Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scharf, and Al Diaz (Basquiat's SAMO partner); gallerists and dealers like Gagosian and Bischofberger; museum curators, musicians, and a few former girlfriends. Each interviewee provides a slightly different perspective, and there is a clear divide in the tone of the comments by those who had a professional interest in the artist and those whose interest was simply personal. Davis's own interview footage from 1986 shows that the artist was well aware that he meant something different to many different people. (That footage also affords a new level of appreciation for Jeffrey Wright's performance as the artist in Schnabel's 1998 biopic; it's pitch-perfect mimicry operating at a very deep level of comprehension.) 

Read the full review here